Drugs for Bipolar Disorder Thwart Motherhood Dreams

Poet Sherri Levine always wanted to have children, but she has bipolar disorder, which causes extreme mood swings, and her mother had it, too. Should she risk passing it on?

She takes lithium to manage her symptoms. Because of the risk of birth defects, it is not considered safe to take lithium during pregnancy, but she knows from hard experience that within two weeks of stopping her medication, she will become manic. The added stress of fluctuating hormones and her changing body will not help. 

Her doctor told her to let go of the motherhood dream. Her husband, who didn’t want children anyway, agreed, but Sherri was and still is devastated. “I don’t want to be an aunt; I want to be a mother,” she said, fighting tears. 

Why not adopt? Her husband didn’t want children, and she wasn’t sure she could deal with the stress of the adoption process.  

So the choice was made. People don’t understand, she says. If she agreed not to get pregnant, why is she still grieving?

Photo by Alex Green on Pexels.com

I think a lot of us here know the answer to that question. When we close the door on parenting, we lose a dream, the life we had expected to have, the children and grandchildren we might have had, a chance to live like our friends and relatives, and the right to claim a rose on Mother’s Day. It’s what Jody Day calls “disenfranchised grief.” You’re losing something you never had, so our friends and co-workers find it hard to understand.

People don’t talk enough about mental illness and childlessness, Sherri says. We need to get the conversation going. Those living with it need the support not only of a team of doctors well-versed on the conditions, medications, and risks, but supportive friends and families who offer love and acceptance.

In doing a little research, I find most of the attention focused on depression during and after pregnancy, not so much about going into a pregnancy with a diagnosed mental illness, such as bipolar, schizophrenia, or depression. It’s a big deal. Many psychotropic medications can cause birth defects in the developing fetus, but not taking them and leaving the illness untreated can be dangerous for both mother and baby. In some cases, it may be possible to find drugs that are safe, but not always. Sherri has looked at other possibilities, but none would manage her illness as well as lithium does. She couldn’t take the chance.

Over the years, childless people I talked to have mentioned concerns about mental illness as a reason they didn’t have children. It’s not always the woman with the problem. Men can pass on genetic-based illnesses to their children. They may also feel that their illness makes them incapable of being good dads. 

A few things are clear:

  1. It’s not just bipolar disorder. There are risks taking any kind of medication during pregnancy. Bipolar medications are particularly dangerous, but there are some drugs that seem to be a bit safer. Medications for depression and anxiety also may endanger the baby, and stopping them could endanger both mother and child. 
  2. If you take prescription drugs for emotional issues, you need to confer with your mental health professional, OB-gyn, and primary care doctor about the pros and cons of pregnancy. You will need support from your partner, along with a team of people who really understand this stuff. 
  3. Ask them: How dangerous is it for me to continue my meds? How dangerous is it to stop? Is there something else I can take that would be safer? Do you think I can handle the stress of pregnancy and childcare? 
  4. Ask more than one professional. The answers are rarely black and white.

Have you or someone you know struggled with mental illness that became a factor in their decision about having children?  Were you/they concerned about medication and birth defects, passing the illness to their offspring, or being able to cope with the added stress of being parents? Let’s talk about this. Sherri Levine, who wrote about this topic here a few years ago, has offered her email address for people who want to talk privately with her about this. You can reach her at sherrihope68@gmail.com.

Some resources: 

Bipolar and Pregnant by Kristin K. Finn, 2007. This looks very helpful, although Amazon has only used copies.

Bipolar and Pregnant by Katie McDowell, 2017. It’s more of a memoir of a woman who did get pregnant shortly after her bipolar diagnosis. Looks good.

International Bipolar Foundation

Mayo Clinic symptoms and causes of bipolar disorder

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Taking the dogs to work

I may be starting to get a handle on this dog-mom-as-pack-leader business. As you may recall, we adopted two Lab-terrier puppies earlier this month. Almost three weeks into it, I feel much more relaxed about the whole business. We’re falling into a routine. I feed them breakfast, take them out, stash them in the laundry room while I shower and have my breakfast, then we all dash down the hall to my office, where they munch their rawhide chews and fall asleep.

Every hour or so we have to go out because their bladders are small. I still pack one under each arm to carry them out because I don’t trust them not to pee in the house, especially when they just woke up, but that’s 27 pounds of dog now. It’s a race between housetraining and dog growth.

Eventually they have lunch, they potty, Fred and I have lunch, and we all go back to work, stopping every hour or so for a potty break and playtime. We repeat the routine until they fall asleep for the night and peace finally reigns over the kingdom.

As for training, it’s coming along, most of the time. They sit, they come, they bite less, althought they’re still better paper shredders than the machine in Fred’s office. When they’re not eating, excreting or sleeping, they’re usually wrestling. It drives me nuts. But I think I had a breakthrough this morning. I actually got them to separate and sit perfectly still for at least a minute.

What’s all this got to do with childlessness? Lots of things, actually. These are my baby substitutes. There is no denying it. I know they’re dogs. I know they won’t take care of me in my old age. I know they won’t give me a party on my 80th birthday. I know they’re animals that will kill smaller animals, given the chance. I know that all of our conversations are one-sided. They are not people.

I think the puppies become so significant because I don’t have children. At 56, this is the first time I have ever cared for a baby anything longer than a couple hours. I am learning lessons that mothers of human babies learn much earlier in life, especially this: the child’s needs come first. I’m struggling to spread my attention among the pups, my husband, and my work. I’m losing work time and spending tons of money on these little guys. These are all experiences that are familiar to women with children, but they’re new to me.

Yesterday, when my husband and I had to go out of town, I took the puppies to daycare. I’ve never done that before. Our other dogs have stayed in the yard or gone to a kennel, but these guys are too small. They can squeeze through too many openings in the fence, they need to be fed often, and they wreak havoc in the laundry room when left there very long. At $20 a pup, it was worth it for the peace of mind. I’m assuming that within a few months, they’ll be self-sufficient enough and big enough to trust on their own, but not yet.

Dogs are not children. But look back a post or two, and you’ll see my friends gave me a puppy shower. Now I’ve taken them to daycare. And God help me, every friend who calls or visits gets called Auntie or Uncle so-and-so. I can’t help myself.

I think the puppies fall somewhere between the dolls I used to play with and the children I never had. They’re kind of like toys, but they’re also live creatures for which I’m responsible.

Back in the real world, I’m working on my chapter about the psychological effects of childlessness. If we don’t become parents, are we perpetual children? Opinions vary, but I’m leaning toward yes.

And now I have to go because the dogs are fighting again–just like my brother and I used to do. My poor sainted mother would spank both of us, saying, “I don’t care who started it.” Next time we got within punching or kicking distance of each other, we’d be at it again. Ditto for the dogs, except I can’t spank them. Corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in dog training.

Have I lost my mind? Or are dogs a healthy substitute when you can’t have children? What do you think?